A Day in Sarnath

Sarnath is a world-famous historical site known for the ‘Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta’. This is the place where Gautama Buddha after attaining enlightenment gave his first sermon called the ‘Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta’. He preached ‘Dhamma’ to his five former companions who later turned into his disciples. The Four Noble Truths of the Sutta formed the basis of the ideology of Buddhism. From here onwards did Buddhism spread across the world.

Replica of Buddha giving his first sermon to his first five disciples
Replica of Buddha giving his first sermon to his first five disciples

On my recent visit to Varanasi, I managed a day for Sarnath to explore the ancient site with a great historical importance. Located very near to Varanasi this is considered as one among the four Buddhist pilgrimages. The other three are Lumbini where Gautama Buddha was born, Bodh Gaya where Buddha became enlightened and Kushinagar where the Buddha attained Parinirvana after his death.

Huge bell with inscription
Huge bell with the inscription

The Sarnath with the ancient site and its surrounding areas is a peaceful getaway which comes as a bonus while visiting the busy religious city of Varanasi. Two nearby places with two religious significance one attached to Hinduism and the other to Buddhism. Sarnath is not only an important Buddhist pilgrimage it is also a Jain pilgrimage as this is the place where the eleventh Jain Tirthankara Shreyansnath was born.

The ruins site
The ruins site

Sarnath has been previously known by many names such as Isipatana or Rishipatana (the place where holy men landed) and Mrigadayavan (deer park). The name Sarnath was coined from the Sanskrit term Saranganatha which means Lord of the deer. This historical site with religious significance is protected and preserved by the Archeological Survey of India (ASI).

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Along with the primary ancient site, there are few comparatively new structures around and has become a tourist attraction these days. The Wat Thai Temple, the Japanese Temple, the Tibetan Temple, the temple built by the Sinhalese missionary are a few among the new monuments. Scattered within a radius of a couple of kilometres lies all these major attractions.

Chaukhandhi Stupa
Chaukhandhi Stupa

Starting with the Chaukhandi Stupa where Buddha met his first five disciples we walk towards the other monuments of interest. The Wat Thai temple, as the name suggests is the Thai temple in a sprawling compound with beautiful structures. A large statue of standing Buddha forms the major attraction for the tourists here. Over-enthusiastic tourists are seen to pose in every possible way to get the perfect selfie with the statue.

Near the Wat Thai Temple

Wai Phra’ is a popular belief among the Thai Buddhist, which is a form of offering to the Lord. The offering mostly consists of candles, flowers (mostly lotus), a thin small square of gold leaf and three incense sticks. Following this tradition, many structures within and around are seen glittering with such gold leaves glued on them.

The Wat Thai temple with the large statue of Buddha
The Wat Thai temple with the large statue of Buddha

The Sarnath Museum is the oldest site Museum of the Archaeological Survey of India. It has a rich collection of ancient ruins which consists of the original Lion Capital of Ashoka, artefacts, structures and various sculptures of Buddha and Bodhisattva. The sandstone sculpture of Ashoka’s Lion Capital forms the main attraction here.

The excavation map
The excavation map

The graphical representation of this has been adopted as the National Emblem of India in the year 1950. The sculpture comprises of four Asiatic lions standing back to back on a circular base which has other animals engraved on it.

The ruins
The Ruins

The famous and much revered Jain pilgrimage is situated very close. The 11th Jain Tirthankara, Shreyansnath was born here. The temple was built in the year 1824. The interior of the temple is beautifully decorated with wall paintings depicting various scenes from the life of Mahavir.

Beautiful waterlily in the Wat Thai Temple
Beautiful waterlily in the Wat Thai Temple

At a little distance from here, Anagarika Dharmapala, the first global Buddhist Missionary from Sri Lanka planted a Bodhi tree which was a cutting from the famous Bodhi tree of Bodh Gaya. A temple stands here in his name with his statue in front.

Temple of Anagarika Dharmapala
Temple of Anagarika Dharmapala
Mulagandhakuti Temple
Mulagandhakuti Temple

The ruins of Mulagandhakuti Vihara was originally the monastery where Buddha used to stay during his visit to Sarnath. In present days the Maha Bodhi Society of Sri Lanka has constructed a temple with the beautiful statue of Buddha and many frescoes depicting the events in the life of Buddha.

Inside the Mulagandhakuti Temple
Inside the Mulagandhakuti Temple

After moving through all these important monuments I finally came to the Dhamek Stupa and the adjoining ruins and the deer park area. The Dhamek Stupa is the place where Buddha gave his first sermon after achieving enlightenment. This is the place where Buddha preached his five disciples the Eightfold Path to attain Nirvana.

The wall of the Dhamek Stupa
The wall of the Dhamek Stupa

The ruins of the monasteries are seen around. The remains of the Ashokan Pillar is preserved within a glass enclosure with the information chiselled on stone boards on either side of the structure. The nearby deer park has a good number of deer and they are within a large enclosure in the backyard of the ruins.

Remains of the Ashokan Pillar
Remains of the Ashokan Pillar

Even with a large number of tourists including foreigners, Indian from other part and the locals it was a place of peace. The manicured lawns and the leafy fencing beside the paved walkways give a beautiful contrast to the brick red surrounding and enhanced the esthetic view of the place.

Information about the Ashokan Pillar
Information about the Ashokan Pillar

Besides the name of deer park (as per the ancient name of Mrigadayavan meaning sanctuary for deer) I personally suggest the name of Butterfly park. 🙂 I was so amused to see a huge number of butterflies fluttering around the green fences. They seemed to be unperturbed by the human presence.

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They too were at peace in this peaceful surrounding. Some people were seen meditating in the lawn while some students from China were seen busy in studying the patterns on the wall of the Dhamek Stupa. Peace prevailed in every corner of this large area.

Students studying at base of the Dhamek Stupa
Students studying at the base of the Dhamek Stupa

Was it because of the divine blessings of Lord Buddha who preached the philosophy of peace, who preached the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (which means turning the wheels of law), who preached the Middle Way (the path to liberation), Impermanence (nothing is permanent), and Dependent origination (the interdependence of everything in this world)?

Fresco in the Mulagandhakuti Temple
Fresco in the Mulagandhakuti Temple

With such thoughts on mindfulness and meditation, I end my post chanting: “Buddham Saranam Gachhami, Dhammam Saranam Gachhami, Sangam Saranam Gachhami.” (I surrender to Buddha, I surrender to Dharma, I surrender to the monastic order).

An artisan weaving the traditional Banarasi Silk Saree
An artisan weaving the traditional Banarasi Silk Saree
Banarasi Sarees for sale in the emporium
Banarasi Sarees for sale in the emporium

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